Into the Super-Verse: The death of the City of Heroes community

It's gone.

Kingdom Come is a 1996 DC Comics miniseries by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. The central conceit of the story is that it takes place after the familiar DC Comics heroes step away from their roles as superheroes due to an increased trend of ultra-violent heroes leads them to believe they no longer have a place in the world, and this is frequently framed as the central conflict in the story. But it isn’t; that conflict is resolved pretty early, leading to an older Justice League quickly returning to the world and laying down a new and more advanced form of order.

No, the central conflict is precisely that escalation. A good chunk of the Justice League decides that their role isn’t to just be heroes but judges, to lock up superhuman criminals under absolute watch and to make it clear that the new way of the world is with metahumans subject to a higher law. So it is that Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman come to blows, and Superman is in the right specifically because he notes that the other heroes have betrayed their ideals. The principle that they’re supposed to hold up is being violated.

This week was a Kingdom Come for the City of Heroes community. And it sucks.

There have been a lot of emotions swirling around the cat being out of the bag here. It turns out that City of Heroes did have a playable emulator, and it was running for years, and it was a complete secret accessible only to those who were deemed worthy of inclusion by the people already included. Just to add fuel to the fire, there’s speculation and accusations about the source code being stolen (we don’t know this for sure), about personal information being leaked (doesn’t seem to be true), and all of the denials you’d expect to be going hand-in-hand with that.

Here’s the thing. None of that actually matters in the immediate sense. I don’t mean that it’s not an issue if personal information was given without consent; that’s obviously a problem if true. No, it’s just that the betrayal already happened.

One of my first claims to fame in my career was being the City of Heroes guy on Massively; I wrote our A Mild-Mannered Reporter column back then. It’s not what I tend to be known for now, but it was how I met a lot of fans, how I started establishing myself, and one of the big parts of my earlier career writing about MMOs. At one of the first PAX East conventions I got to chat with War Witch about the art featured in my columns. I wrote an article slamming development decisions and got a handshake and “thank you” from the developers at New York Comic-con. I became a visible part of the community.

As such, a lot of the people personally implicated in this or implicated by association are people I know. Not intimately; we’re not talking about close personal friends, but these are not strangers. They’re parts of the community I considered trustworthy, at least until it became clear that we don’t actually have a community.

This is how we fall.

Yes, you read that right. You can’t keep something like this a secret for years and then pretend that you’re still one big dedicated community with the same goal in mind. You had portions of the community supporting projects to bring back something as close as possible… only to find out that something much closer to the real thing was already there and running.

You just weren’t cool enough to get brought into the fold. Or you didn’t have the right friends. “We are heroes” is not a rallying cry you can use with the caveat of “only some of you count as hero enough for the Special Hero Club.”

Obviously, given my points of contact and my place in the community, I’d heard rumors about the fact that there was an emulator. The people who told me about it were doing so back on Massively-that-was, and our mandate under AOL and Joystiq was to not cover emulators at all. My assumption was that that project had eventually turned into SEGS or Paragon Chat, or it was an open secret that everyone had just agreed not to speak about publicly. It seemed absurd to me that a community prized as a community would have major figures hiding something like that.

But no, that’s what happened. Cue people in the community far more important than I trying to get out ahead of things, claiming that it was a surprise to them as well or that the server operators are good guys and thus shouldn’t be held accountable for anything and so forth.

And you know what? I’d believe it. I would entirely believe that this was a good-faith effort undertaken in secret for fear of litigation, that the people involved in running it really are good folks with nothing but the best of intentions, and that the people generating the outcry are doing so due to personal vendettas.

Guess what? It no longer matters. Because the community for the game has been killed pretty effectively now that the schism is clear. Whatever the reasons for its existence, the existence is here and exposed.

This is the way we won't.

Communities are fragile things, especially when they’re centered around a game that is no longer publicly accessible. The one thing that’s held the CoH community together for this long is a sense of shared loss, the idea that we all still hold the same place for the game in our hearts and miss it equally. And part of that feeling of shared loss is, well… the loss. Sure, there are patches on the game, but there’s not the game itself.

Maybe the emulator didn’t really have the game running quite right. But that doesn’t matter now; what matters is the idea, planted so deep that it cannot be extricated, that some people were getting to just keep playing the game with nary a hitch. How do you share that feeling of loss when some people didn’t have the loss?

No one wins in this scenario. More likely than not, the server itself will get shut down now, as it’s hard to imagine NCsoft overlooking it now that it’s been made visible. The community members involved are going to become kind of toxic for the community, and at best we can hope that the fallout doesn’t splash over on to other projects. And as long as we’re hoping for things, let’s bring the McRib back year round.

The shutdown of the game itself couldn’t kill the community. But looking at this from here, this is a killer.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve spent a lifetime basically certain of the fact that whatever community I might seem to be a part of isn’t actually my community. In terms of personal hurt, the idea of “you could have been playing the whole time” doesn’t hit me very hard. I came to terms with this loss a long time ago and accepted it. Reluctantly, perhaps, but accepted it just the same.

But what does hurt me is twofold. It’s the fact that the community itself was exposed as not really as inclusive as we all thought. Yes, I can understand the reasons for keeping it secret, but I can also think of a few dozen ways to do that while still keeping the lines open to new people, none of which seem to have been pursued. And the obvious rejoinder of “having it invite-only means people you can trust are the only ones who know” is proven a lie because this happened with the whole thing being invite-only.

And that’s the other part. It’s not just that the people running it did something sleazy; it’s also that someone entrusted with the secret decided to ruin it for no reason other than sheer anarchic destruction. By all accounts, none of the more shocking allegations is even remotely true.

So now multiple things are destroyed at the bare minimum, and nothing is gained. And I just keep hearing Billy Batson calmly explaining to me that you guys don’t act like heroes any more.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Eliot Lefebvre and Justin Olivetti covering superhero MMORPGs, past, present, and future! Come along on patrol as Into the Super-verse avenges the night and saves the world… one column at a time.

Complete rundown on the entire City of Heroes SCORE mess. To be clear, we are not encouraging illegal activity and advise everyone involved to consider their actions carefully:


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I knew about the secret server for years, but understood that they wanted to keep it quiet. One reason was to prevent it being shut down, but also, if suddenly everyone who ever played CoX found out about it and then wanted “in” on the secret server, it would have been a SHIT TON of work for those running it and seeing no reward for doing so. They were providing this for free to a select few people.

My handle was Work-Ethic and on the forums my avatar was Wally from Dilbert to anyone thinking I am just talking out of my ass.


Eric Dinosa

Well… what a dramatic story. I don’t think I can fully grasp yet what has happened, and it seems as if there may be more things that may be revealed about this soon.

Maybe I shouldn’t comment on this without knowing all the facts. But then again… I dunno, there are just some things that bother me.

Mind you, before I go on: I don’t know any of the ppl involved. I haven’t played on that secret server. I really liked COH and prolly would have liked trying an emu. And yeah, from certain perspectives, this might seem like a really bad, selfish move from the people running the server.

However, you know what? I can understand why someone WOULD keep this secret, without going “I HAZ IT; NO ONE ELSE WILL, I KEEP THIS TO MYSELF, I DONT CARE ABOUT THE OTHERS” or whatever.

Here is my point:

– I used to run a private server for an MMO. This was years ago. We just wanted to run our own little server based on a specific period of the MMO. We had about 100 people max on it when it was active. Mind you, this was in like 2005 or so. Servers were expensive and they couldnt handle a huge amount of players. Therefore, we weren’t eager to have THAT many new players.
We paid for the server ourselves. a few players donated some money, but still, renting a ton of more servers was not an option… maybe with new players, we’d have gotten new donors, but there is no guarantee and eventually, we’d have been the ones stuck with the costs.

Now, if you have the only working private server of a game a lot of people miss, would YOU open the floodgate and go “WE ARE HERE! ALL OF YOU, COME IN”? A lot of new players means more server load, causing instability and/or increased costs which have to be covered. I dont know how many players a used server you run at home somewhere can handle today, but if you go public, you can’t take it back really, and even if lots of people will jump in, fiddle around a bit and leave, you will have more players, which either will cause technical problems or require more money to be spent.
And no, I disagree to what was said in the podcast. “If there had been too many people wanting to come in, they would have waited, would have worked with the guys running the server”.

I dont believe that for a sec. Imagine you go public, with so many people wanting the game back, wanting a private server. Look at how entitled some people feel, or how people act like a company killed their whole family when a server is down temporatily. Look at the drama now. Can you imagine what would have happened if they had gone public, going “We are here, but only a quarter of you guys can come in for now”. People feeling left out, impatient. It would have been a huge drama as well, and I can guarantee you some people would have been angry and impatient enough to try and cause trouble.

– The legal situation. Yes, COH is gone. But what would have happened if it would have become public knowledge that this server was running, and how they got the code? This could have caused major legal repercussions even if the original game is offline.
Look at what happened to so many other emu servers. If you get caught and you get those letters, you better stop and stay off the radar. So going public might have meant to lose this rare chance.

– The “organic factor”. I imagine that the population there grew slowly. Just a few people, inviting friends. Server load increased, so solutions were found. The people running it might have worried about legal problems or whatever.
Imagine this… you love the game, you HAVE a way of playing this. Do NOT tell me that the majority of people would have gone “OMG, I have this, I have a lot of people play this. But you know what? I care about this community so much, I will go public, admitting how I got the code and that I run this server of a game whose rights I dont own. And when a ton of people want in NOW, I will rent a few servers and hope donations will suffice.”

Yes, I would have liked to know about this server and try it. But you know what? I to a certain degree understand why they acted the way they did. It’s not like they have a formula for medication that will cure any cancer.
They had gotten stuff in a legally not very clear way, they couldn’t provide enough infrastructure to host the majority of players wanting to play this game. They prolly didn’t know what’d happen if NC Softs lawyers would find out about this. If they had been caught while promoting their server, they could have faced legal problems.

I know, all of this is partially theory, is what I assume. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe they went “We have this, and the rest of the community can burn in hell”. But I feel like a lot of the reactions sound pretty shortsighted or unfair, and I imagine there may be some reasons people don’t consider. Just my 2 cents.



Heath Brown

I’ve already said way too much on this but one last thing I want to say is that secrets never stay secret. The more people that know the sooner the secret is exposed. Once 10 or more people found out, the secret’s fate was sealed. That they managed to keep a secret for that many years is a pretty amazing feat. I’m not angry any more, just kind of sick of the whole thing.


This is Gordon Ramsey levels of salt. There was a game, it shut down, some people had a thing and didn’t invite others, queue QQ.


Great write up! Though I have one issue over this…

” Yes, I can understand the reasons for keeping it secret, but I can also think of a few dozen ways to do that while still keeping the lines open to new people, none of which seem to have been pursued.”

…could you please describe what some of those are? As I feel this would crystallize the issues that many have over this. Hopefully forcing the current hosts of this emu to give account for their oversights.

I mean, if they could of done this better…they should be really owning it IMO, as opposed to digging in.


I’d also like to see how he gets that the whistle blower is just doing this for the sheer giggles of watching it burn. So far I’ve seen no evidence of that and seems to be just the writer of the article ascribing a motive out of his own feelings on this.

If there’s evidence of that I apologize, but so far I don’t see it.


I don’t know about that.

Though that’s not really nearly as important as giving the alternative how Mr. Eliot would of done the super-secret emu better. Because I’m not sure how I could of done it better, to be frank and frances. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way of doing it. I suspect there is…

…and that would deal with heart of the matter head on if there is, IMO. And regardless of the players who made this drama come to light.


I just kinda don’t want to see the guy get thrown under the bus if he doesn’t deserve it. Either one of them. Maybe he really thought dragging this into the light would do some good. It appears to have been terribly misguided, but I’d rather assume ignorance than malice as it were.

Bruno Brito

Open the code. Let any scumbag or naive hopeful hero make a server, for 5, for 100, for thousands. Let it flood the gates Nostalrius-like and forget everything about legality, since that ship has sailed already.

Instead of dying in this bullseye hill for being a petty dickwad, just let people fucking play the game they loved and it was taken from them. Why would you be against that anyway?

Aaaaand, while no community is a homogeneous body, and i really don’t think a non-existant game has a community ( more like just a bunch of people feigning trust while having just one thing in common ), what SCORE did was a low blow. A really low, low blow.


Well, you got your wish. It is now no longer practical to build clean-room reverse-engineered legal servers, only illegal ones subject to getting shut down the instant they become popular.


The only thing I disagree with here is venerating the McRib. They’re no better than the BBQ pork patties I can get from Speedway.

Other than that? Spot friggin’ on.


I’ve always suspect that of Mc’D’s…a big vat that processes whatever foods they punch in from the cash register. The same machine that Taco Bell uses no doubt! >.<


I keep reading the Word Emulator in Articles on this site.

What Emulator? Everyone who thinks that this was a self programmed Emulator which magically appeared just a few Months after the Shutdown of the original Servers should think again.

Emil Söderman

I find it interesting the people talking about “Stolen code” and NCsofts proprietary rights… I mean, obviously they have legal claims, but I’m honestly baffled at the people who are outraged at this (as opposed to merely telling people to be cautious about the possible legal consequences) on NCsoft’s part.

Tee Parsley

Yep, they didn’t initiate, code, design or even understand CoH. They just ended up with ownership and killed it for the quarterly boost to help fend off a PWE takeover attempt.